The author and the villagers in Nam Dam village

Kim and Nam Dam village community members

Meeting the Communities’ Needs

by Kim Pham

In 2014 I was working as a project officer, and volunteer coordinator, for a community-based tourism project in Ha Giang province, Vietnam (my home country). Our project site was Nam Dam ethnic village that has a lot of traditional cultural heritage and a stunning mountainous landscape.  The local residents have been farmers for generations. However, low income from farming was making life hard. It was believed that tourism development could create alternative income for villagers while also helping protect natural and heritage resources in the area. Our project helped residents provide accommodation for tourists in their own home, and other tourism services such as meals, traditional music performance, and tours. We did not have an official volunteer program with pre-designed activities, however, we were willing to welcome volunteers who were interested in helping the community.

Many tourists traveling to developing countries want to do something good for the local people.  In Vietnam, the volunteer activities for tourists are often organized by local and international volunteer organizations, travel companies, and social enterprises. Popular activities are teaching English for children, donating toys or money for schools, and visiting orphanage centers to take care of children. Like in other places around the world, some of the activities in Vietnam are controversial such as visiting orphanage centers that can turn them into professional businesses. There is discussion that volunteer activities do not adequately address the communities’ needs.  Hence, there is a demand for more activities to replace the controversial ones and activities that meet the demand of communities.

When tourists wanted to volunteer, they contacted me as a coordinator and introduced themselves. We talked about what skills they could offer, the communities’ needs, and sought to match their skills with a community need. One example was when we organized activities for two Australian tourists. At that time, we were in the process of creating a website to advertise the community-based tourism project. We wanted to collect traditional village folklore stories to showcase the area’s rich culture, however, we needed the stories written in English. Since the two Australian tourists were native speakers and accompanied by a tour-guide who could interpret for them, we assigned them to collect and write folklore stories. They stayed in the village for a week, meeting with local people and asking them to tell stories. The process was a delightful experience for both volunteers and villagers. The volunteers not only worked, but also had cultural interaction with the villagers, whereas the villagers found the exchange pleasant as well. Through this experience, we had a lot of high-quality stories to upload on our website.

Nam Dam villagers
Nam Dam villagers

Another example was when we had one volunteer from France. He was a professional photographer working for a famous magazine. We asked him to help by taking photos of landscapes and people in the village to update on our website. He readily did so, and not only that, we were able to use his photography for other occasions too.

Besides those activities, we sometimes had tourists coming to donate books, clothes, and toys for children. The villagers were happy about this. However, we were more satisfied with volunteers offering their skills to help the community. Matching volunteers’ skills with the needs of the communities made voluntary activities more effective, diversified, and practical. It could be a lesson learnt for other communities and other volunteer programs.

Some challenges related to volunteering in another community are: 1) how do volunteers contact each community to understand community needs, and, 2) who the contact person should be in each community. Other difficulties can be related to the language barrier. Many remote communities often do not have residents who speak English. In the case of our project, we had English-speaking project officers to act as coordinators to make things easier. To remedy the language barrier issue, government agencies could act as a coordinator. To implement the ideas of approaching communities to explore what their needs are, it may require the volunteers to be proactive as well obtain assistance from the local government and other organizations.

Nam Dam village landscape
Nam Dam village landscape